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In centuries past, the people of central and northern Friuli-Venezia Giulia were typically poor and often plagued by famine. This was especially true during the long, brutal winters in the Carnia mountains, when snow would barricade the few existing roads, leaving families to fend for themselves. Until modern times, most Friulians were farmers. Their cuisine was a diet of poverty, consisting primarily of hearty grains and vegetables, particularly those with a long shelf life like potatoes. Beans, barley, and corn could easily be dried for lengthy storage. Turnips and cabbage were preserved through fermentation to make, respectively, brovada and sauerkraut. All of these foods are still an important part of the region’s cuisine today.

In contrast, Trieste, having long been the chief port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was an exotic crossroads of culture, with influences from around the world helping to shape its cuisine. While the foods of poverty remain dietary staples for many families here, it is the abundance of fresh seafood that best defines Triestine cooking.

The following are five of FVG’s most well-known soups:

Jota (also spelled “iota”) is considered to be one of Trieste’s native dishes. The main ingredients are beans, potatoes, and sauerkraut. A similar soup is made in Carnia using brovada (pickled turnips) in place of the sauerkraut.

 

 

 

Minestra di Bobici is prepared with beans, potatoes, and corn. Originally a specialty of the Istrian peninsula, this tasty soup is now popular in Trieste (where “bobici” is dialect for corn) as well as in the villages of the Carso. The sweet corn and salty pancetta provide lots of flavor, making this one of my all-time favorite soups.

 

 

Orzo e Fagioli is a hearty soup made with barley and beans. You’ll find the dish throughout Friuli, where it is perfect for a cold winter’s evening.

 

 

 

 

Paparòt is made with spinach and cornmeal. It is typical of central Friuli’s home cooking, especially in the province of Pordenone.

 

 

 

 

Brodeto alla Triestina is virtually indistinguishable from the numerous varieties of zuppa di pesce (fish soup) found throughout the Mediterranean, including Livorno’s cacciucco, Ancona’s brodetto, and Marseille’s bouillabaisse.

 

 

 

Recipes for all five of these soups can be found in my cookbook Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy.

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1. Ski the slopes of Monte Santo di Lussari

Among the towering, snow-capped peaks of Italy’s Giulian Alps, Monte Santo di Lussari stands out like a precious gem. Near the 5,870-foot summit, a pristine 14th-century sanctuary looks out over the forested valleys below. Legend says that in 1360 a shepherd knelt to pray atop this mountain and discovered hidden in the brush a wooden statue of the Madonna and Child. The patriarch of Aquileia soon ordered a small chapel built on that very spot. For centuries, vast numbers of pilgrims from neighboring countries have journeyed to this religious site. Today, the telecabina, or “ski lift,” carries passengers from the village of Camporosso at its base to Borgo Lussari at the summit.

2. Enjoy a plate of hot, steaming goulasch at Albergo Ristorante Rododendro

During ski season, the few taverns and restaurants on Monte Santo di Lussari are always teeming with guests. Even if you’re not a skier, take the telecabina to the top, where you can tuck into a warm meal at one of the village’s rustic taverns or simply admire the snowy panoramic views across the Valcanale and Tarvisio basin. If you can get a table in the rustic dining room of Albergo Ristorante Rododendro, you’ll have a wide selection of traditional Friulian dishes, including orzo e fagioli (bean and barley soup), gnocchi di pane (bread dumplings), frico con polenta (cheese and potato pancake with polenta), cervo in salmì (venison stew), and goulasch (Hungarian-style beef stew). Dessert offerings include strudel di mele (apple strudel), torta ai frutti di bosco (wild berry cake), and sachertorte (chocolate cake with apricot jam and ganache).

3. Attend the Krampus festivities in Tarvisio

In Central European folklore, the Krampus is a half-goat, half-demon character that is something of an anti-Santa Claus, in that he punishes children who have misbehaved rather than giving them presents. Many regions, including the Alpine towns of northern Italy, hold festivities dedicated to both Krampus and St. Nicholas.

Tarvisio is the site of one of these events. Every year on December 5, people dress up as Krampus—a costume consisting of goat or sheep fur and a wooden devil mask with horns—and roam the streets carrying torches, ringing cowbells, and searching for “bad” children. They are accompanied by St. Nicholas, who rides in a cart pulled by several Krampus. The parade concludes with St. Nicholas subduing the Krampus (representing the triumph of good over evil) and handing out small gifts and candies to the children.

4. Browse the stalls at Udine’s Mercatino di Natale

Every December, Udine’s Piazza della Libertà gets decked out for the holidays, as the Torre dell’Orologio (clock tower), Tempietto di San Giovanni, and arches of the Porticato are all strung with glistening lights. Underneath the pink- and white-striped Loggia del Lionello, a brass band plays Christmas carols, the festive notes luring shoppers to the city’s annual Christmas market.

In the center of the raised piazza towers a giant Christmas tree surrounded by several dozen market stands. These red, white-roofed stalls sit in rows along a grid of green carpet and display a variety of trinkets and edible treats. Here, you may browse homemade jams and honey, as well as handcrafted items such as candles, tree ornaments, and soaps. Local bakeries showcase regional desserts alongside stalls featuring foods imported from other regions. As the sun sets, shoppers can nibble on roasted chestnuts or samples of crostini with prosciutto di San Daniele, accompanied by a warm cup of vin brulé (mulled wine).

5. While in Udine, enjoy a traditional Friulian meal at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo

It was at Osteria Al Vecchio Stallo that I fell in love with the cuisine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. One of the Udine’s oldest, the restaurant is housed in a 17th-century building that once served as a stable and rest stop for deliverymen. Amid the atmosphere of an old-world tavern—wood-beamed ceilings, hardwood floors, red-checked tablecloths, and walls cluttered with colorful paintings, newspaper clippings, period photographs of Udine, and memorabilia of all sorts—chef Mario serves up hearty portions of local dishes such as cjalsòns (herb-filled pasta topped with cinnamon and smoked ricotta), gnocchi di susine (potato dumplings stuffed with plums), baccalà (salt cod stew), sarde in saor (marinated sardines), cevapcici (Slavic grilled sausages), salame all’aceto (salami cooked in vinegar), and brovada (pickled turnips). In true Friulian style, most second courses are served with polenta. For dessert, order the gubana—a spiral cake filled with dried fruit, nuts, and spices.

6. Warm up with an Illy espresso or hot chocolate in one of Trieste’s Viennese-style coffee houses

While they truly love wine and beer, Triestini are even more notorious as coffee drinkers. Claimed by many to be the world’s best coffee, Illycaffè got its start in Trieste in the early 1900s. Of the 6 million cups of Illy espresso or cappuccino that are enjoyed daily around the globe, a good number are imbibed at home in Trieste’s old-time cafés. The legendary ones—Caffè San Marco, Caffè Tommaseo, Caffè degli Specchi, and Caffè Tergesteo—date from the 19th to the early 20th century. Authors James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, Italo Svevo, and Umberto Saba were known to be regulars.

7. Indulge in a putizza from one of Trieste’s historic bakeries

Photo courtesy of Pasticceria Penso

One of several desserts considered native to Trieste, putizza is a rich spiral cake filled with dried fruit, chocolate, nuts, and spices. Like Friulian gubana, a similar spiral pastry, it was originally baked only for the Christmas and Easter holidays but is now available year round. For a taste of the city’s best putizza, I recommend visiting one of the century-old bakeries such as Pasticceria Penso or Pasticceria Bomboniera. Both prepare an excellent putizza, though there is one slight difference I noticed in sampling the two. Penso melts the chocolate for their filling, while Bomboniera leaves the chocolate in large chunks. Taste them both to decide your favorite!

8. Take advantage of the off-season with a crowd-free stroll in the seaside town of Grado

Located on an island and adjacent peninsula in the marshy lagoon off Friuli, Grado was once a fishing village but is now a popular destination for beachgoers. Though lacking the pristine, white sand of nearby Lignano Sabbiadoro, crowds still flock to Grado’s beaches and spas during the summer season. In winter, however, the town takes on an entirely different character, with the winding alleys of the medieval centro storico largely devoid of tourists. An expansive seaside promenade that curves around the town center makes for a relaxing afternoon stroll, as do the boat-lined canals that run through the harbor.

9. While in Grado, sample the town’s signature dish, boreto alla Gradese

When dining in Grado, don’t miss the town’s best known dish, boreto all Gradese. Also called boreto alla graesana in local dialect (and not to be confused with the soup called brodeto), boreto alla Gradese is a selection of small fish steaks cooked with garlic and vinegar and served with white polenta. Many restaurants in Grado offer the dish on their menu, but one of the more elegant is Tavernetta All’Androna, run by the brothers Attias and Allan Tarlao.

10. Attend the quirky Carnevale Muggesano

Photo courtesy of Associazione delle Compagnie del Carnevale Muggesano

In contrast to the elegant, baroque images evoked by the nearby Carnevale di Venezia, Muggia celebrates the absurd and bizarre with townspeople dressed in quirky garb such as cartoon characters, farm animals, and platters of food. Among the whimsical costumes, however, you will rarely see a masked face. Contrary to the practice of other Carnevale celebrations where anonymity is sacred, the people of Muggia have elected to keep their identities exposed.

Carnevale Muggesano began after World War II, when a group of friends dressed up as gauchos and marched through the streets playing music. As they repeated this annual affair, dressed next as gypsies and later as Apache Indians, the procession grew with more and more people joining in the merriment. Soon a few rival groups had formed, each costumed in its own fantastical theme. By 1954, the parade had blossomed into an official event.

The week of festivities opens with the “Dance of the Vegetables,” when representatives of each group perform for the public. This is followed by the “megafrittata,” a culinary ritual that begins with townspeople traipsing door to door begging for eggs. The eggs are then used to make what is possibly the world’s largest frittata, cooked in a giant 13-foot-wide frying pan. On Ash Wednesday, to mark the final day of the celebration, the groups perform a tragicomedy ritual: following a solemn funeral procession, townspeople throw a lifelike “corpse” of the Carnevale king into the sea.

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My rendition of gubana delle Valli del Natisone, as featured in Flavors of Friuli

While doing research for Flavors of Friuli, one of my most nagging questions was this: is there any difference between gubana and the similar-looking spiral pastries from Trieste, putizza and presnitz, or are they simply regional names for the same dessert? On one of my trips I spoke to a woman working at Pasticceria Ducale in Cividale del Friuli, and she gave me what was the clearest explanation I’d yet found.

Derived from the Slovene word guba, meaning “wrinkle” or “fold,” the name gubana is suggestive of the swirls and spirals in the pastry. While literary sources date similar recipes to the Middle Ages and perhaps even the Romans, the first document to mention gubana by name was written in 1576. There are two types of gubana: gubana delle Valli del Natisone and gubana Cividalese.

Putizza, photo courtesy of Pasticceria Penso

Gubana delle Valli del Natisone is a large spiral cake made with a yeast-based dough and filled with dried fruit, nuts, and spices. It appears very similar to putizza, the spiral cake from Trieste, which gets its name from the Slovenian pastry called potica. As it was explained to me at Pasticceria Ducale, putizza contains chocolate, while gubana delle Valli del Natisone typically does not; otherwise they are quite similar. Later, as I sampled multiple versions of both cakes, I discovered several other differences, notably that this type of gubana is baked as a free-form loaf, while putizza is baked in a round cake pan (or in some bakeries, a paper mold). As I began to test-bake recipes, I came to understand the reason for this. The dough for putizza is much softer and doesn’t hold its shape when filled, necessitating a pan to contain the spiral. In addition, putizza tends to have a higher filling-to-dough ratio, making it a richer, more decadent treat.

Gubana Cividalese, Pasticceria Ducale

Gubana Cividalese contains the same filling as the Valli del Natisone version but is prepared with puff pastry and rolled into a snake-like spiral. When gubana was first conceived, puff pastry required equipment and knowledge only available to the upper classes, making gubana Cividalese the aristocrat’s pastry of choice in the prominent city of Cividale, while gubana delle Valli del Natisone was the version typically prepared by peasants living in the valleys around the Natisone River.

Presnitz, photo courtesy of Pasticceria Penso

Like gubana Cividalese, presnitz, named after the Slovenian Easter cake called presnec, is made with puff pastry and contains a filling of dried fruit, nuts, and spices. In our conversation, the woman at Pasticceria Ducale asserted that gubana Cividalese and presnitz were entirely identical. Since then I have learned that, while this may be true for modern versions of the pastries, historically there is one significant difference. Because Trieste’s wealth during the Hapsburg era brought an increased availability of exotic imports such as spices, nuts, and liqueurs to the city, presnitz was considered a more refined pastry and typically comprised a much longer ingredient list than its counterpart from Cividale. Presnitz was first presented to the empress Elisabeth during a mid-19th century visit to Trieste.

Recipes for gubana delle Valli del Natisone, gubana Cividalese, putizza, and presnitz may be found in my book Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy.

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Strucolo de Pomi (Apple Strudel), in honor of the Festa della Mela, held in mid-September in the Carnian town of Tolmezzo. While apple strudel is popular throughout Friuli, this version using puff pastry is based on the recipe given to me by Trieste’s Pasticceria Penso. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Calamari Ripieni (Stuffed Squid). Popular in many coastal regions of Italy, as well as along the Istrian peninsula, stuffed calamari are featured on menus at the numerous seafood restaurants that line Trieste’s waterfront. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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For my Recipe of the Month, I have chosen Strucolo de Spinaze (Spinach-Filled Pasta Roll). Strucolo means “strudel” in the Triestine dialect, though restaurants may also refer to the dish as a “rotolo” or “rollata.” It is quite common throughout the Carso, often served with the pan sauces from a roasted or braised meat. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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This review was originally published in the September 2010 issue of Dream of Italy.

My fondest memory of Trieste will always be the day I first stepped into Pasticceria Penso. My timing seems predestined—I arrived on a blustery February morning just as a few dozen chocolate cakes were being pulled from the oven. I was immediately invited back into the cozy kitchen to watch their transformation into torta Sacher. The patriarch of the family-run bakery, Italo Stoppar, doused each layer of cake with Maraschino liqueur, then spread on a thick coat of apricot preserves. His son Antonello drizzled the top with dark chocolate ganache, which was soon followed by a garnish of chocolate sprinkles around the sides. This was just the first of many such mornings; the next year, I arranged for an apartment across the street, so that I could spend countless hours observing their techniques—and sampling every cream-stuffed, chocolate-glazed, fruit-filled morsel I could possibly devour.

The bakery was founded in 1920 by Trieste native Narciso Penso. When he died in 1971, the store was bought by one of his young employees, Italo Stoppar, who had begun working at Penso in the 1960s after a stint as a pastry chef on the cruise ship Lloyd Triestino.

Today, as Stoppar passes on the trade to his two sons, Lorenzo and Antonello, Pasticceria Penso is truly a family business. Brother-in-law Giovanni also helps out in the kitchen, while Italo’s wife, Rosanna, and Giovanni’s wife, Silvana, tend to customers. The mood is light, the kitchen functioning like a well-choreographed ballet, each person silently knowing everyone else’s next move. Italo’s role is both slicer and icer. He can usually be seen preparing the layered cakes and jelly rolls—slicing the cakes into layers, spreading them with buttercream frosting, whipped cream, ganache, or caramel, and finally slicing the sheet cakes into the proper rectangular serving size. His steady hand also garnishes birthday cakes with whipped cream flowers and flourishes, piping special messages in chocolate icing. Lorenzo is in charge of dough, filling tartlet pans with crostata crust and rolling puff pastry for strudel. Antonello handles a little of everything, from applying fruit garnishes to measuring and mixing cake batter, from sorting and grinding almonds for marzipan to melting chocolate for ganache.

True to Trieste’s multiethnic roots, Pasticceria Penso specializes in the pastries from Austria and Hungary, such as the ever-popular Sacher and Dobos cakes, as well as the ubiquitous local desserts presnitz, putizza, and pinza. In all, they make around thirty-five different types of pastries, cakes, and cookies, which are purchased by locals for both special anniversary celebrations and as a Sunday post-church ritual. The sturdier pastries are also shipped to clients throughout Europe, the United States, and Australia.

In a city that clings to heritage and tradition, Pasticceria Penso is surprisingly one of just a few surviving bakeries from its era. The quality of their product is surely what has kept Penso in business for so many years. They use only butter—unlike many modern bakeries that rely on margarine to prolong shelf life—and always top-quality ingredients, from the richest, darkest baking chocolate to the Bulgarian rose oil that flavors the pink fave dei morti cookies. Their key to success is perhaps identical to the inherent nature of Trieste itself—classic Viennese precision combined with pure Italian passion.

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